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The Philippines’ ‘Pivot’ to China: View From Singapore

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Trans-Pacific View

The Philippines’ ‘Pivot’ to China: View From Singapore

Insights from See Seng Tan.

The Philippines’ ‘Pivot’ to China: View From Singapore
Credit: Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with See Seng Tan – Professor of International Relations and Deputy Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University – is the 67th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

What are the strategic implications of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to “pivot” to China?

It is difficult at this point to determine exactly what President Duterte’s objectives are. On the one hand, during his visit to Beijing in October, he claimed that his country would “separate” from its relationship with the U.S., and he successfully scored deals worth billions in funding and pledges of infrastructure investment, ostensibly in exchange for shelving the dispute over the South China Sea (SCS). On the other hand, upon his return from China, Duterte insisted he did not really want to separate from the U.S. as it was “in the best interest of my countrymen to maintain that relationship.”Hence, whether Duterte’s so-called “pivot” to China truly reflects a strategic shift remains unclear. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong believes the Philippine president wasn’t merely posturing, but admits he isn’t sure how far Duterte would go to distance his country from the U.S. In any case, following Donald Trump’s victory in the recently concluded U.S. presidential election, Duterte struck a conciliatory tone with the U.S. and indicated his desire to resume military exercises with the U.S., which he had earlier vowed to stop.

Should his China “pivot” denote a major change in Manila’s strategic priorities, it could spell the end of the Philippine-U.S. alliance as we know it. It could lead countries like Singapore to enhance its already robust facilitation of the U.S. forward presence in the Asia-Pacific, not unlike what Singapore did following the closure of U.S. bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s. It could also impel countries like Vietnam to deepen their security ties with the U.S. Lastly, it could set the stage for the emergence of a Chinese “sphere of influence” – one is reminded of President Xi Jinping’s vision of an “Asia for Asians” – but it is highly unlikely that the U.S., given its pivot to Asia and conduct of FONOPs [freedom of navigation operations] in the SCS – assuming the incoming Trump Administration elects to continue this policy – would just sit back and do nothing. All this could make for a very unsettled region.

What are hedging strategies of other Southeast Asian nations, including Singapore, vis-à-vis growing U.S.-China competition for regional influence?

So sudden was Manila’s volte-face on the claim of separation from the U.S. that other Southeast Asian countries have had little time to react to it. If anything, a possible lesson President Duterte might have gleaned from his experience is that it pays to play the big powers off one another. Reportedly, when Secretary Kerry visited President Duterte in Manila in late July, he came bearing a $33 million gift for the Philippines, despite the president’s impolitic description of the U.S. ambassador. Mr. Duterte allegedly said, “OK, maybe we should offend [the Americans] more.”

In their different ways, Southeast Asian countries have long demonstrated a preference for hedging vis-à-vis the big powers, and are incessantly reminding China and the U.S. not to compel any of them to take sides in the growing U.S.-China competition. Even then, things have occasionally gotten out of hand, as happened at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012, when disagreement among ASEAN states over whether and how ASEAN should address the SCS disputes led to its failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its history. Arguably, that debacle proved a turning point of sorts, because the careful manner in which country chairs have since steered subsequent ASEAN gatherings suggests the member states have no wish to subject their organization to similar embarrassments again.

Needless to say, China seems intent on persisting with its divide-and-rule strategy, as evinced by Beijing’s claim this April that it secured a “four-point consensus” on the SCS disputes with Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos. However, none of those ASEAN states in question mentioned the establishment of such a deal with the Chinese in their respective post-meeting statements. These developments imply that the ASEAN countries are happy to continue engaging China but are loathe to bandwagon with it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “litmus test” of U.S. credibility in the region. Can you expand on this? 

The TPP is a practical statement of the U.S. economic and security commitment to the Asia-Pacific. If America fails to deliver on the TPP, it risks hurting its international credibility and reliability as an ally. Countries like Japan have had to bend over backwards – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to negotiate difficult arrangements on agriculture, cars, sugar, and dairy – in order to join the TPP. The Singapore prime minister is not alone in his view on this matter; his Australian and Japanese counterparts have made pretty much the same point. As Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative (2001-2005), has argued, “If the U.S. fails to act on an agreement that is in America’s interests, Pacific partners will doubt U.S. steadfastness or even the U.S. political system’s ability to act in America’s self-interest. They will see it as a signal of disengagement.”

The disappointment would be more keenly felt by countries like Singapore, not only because it was one of the original P4 countries that initiated the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership – precursor to the TPP – back in 2006, but because more than most, Singapore has long played and continues to play a key role to facilitate U.S. engagement with the region. Moreover, since the Obama Administration has sought to present the TPP as the economic face of its pivot, failure by Washington to deliver on the TPP could end up strengthening Chinese suspicions, unfortunately and unfairly, that the TPP was purely a ploy to contain China.

What might a post-Obama U.S. rebalance to Asia look like and what would be Singapore’s role?

At this early juncture, we can only speculate on what President-elect Trump’s policy toward Asia might look like. Rather unexpectedly and in contrast to his negative comments on U.S. alliances rendered during the election campaign, Mr. Trump’s first foreign policy initiative was to pledge his country’s commitment to the defense of South Korea. Given the strong resistance against the TPP among his supporters, I doubt if Trump will experience a similar change-of-heart regarding the trade pact. However, as a business mogul, he presumably appreciates the fundamental importance of Asia to U.S. economic interests. If, as reportedly claimed by an adviser to the president-elect, what the world should expect to see in the coming days is the establishment of “a very mainstream Republican administration,” then it is unlikely that the image of a globally disengaged and isolated U.S. painted by Trump’s campaign rhetoric will materialize. Hence, a post-Obama engagement of Asia by a Trump-led U.S. is likely to be economically-focused, which Singapore will favorably endorse and help to facilitate. As PM Lee noted in a recent interview, a “friendly, benign, and supportive” America is what Asia needs.

What message should U.S. President-elect Donald Trump convey regarding U.S. leadership in Southeast Asia?

That the U.S. will continue to engage deeply and extensively with Southeast Asia and provide the requisite leadership, in partnership with other regional powers and ASEAN, to the common task of ensuring that Southeast Asia remains stable, secure, and prosperous.